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Inside the $15 million YouTube House, where it’s all work and no play

It sounds like a dream: Living in a mansion playing video games with your best friends all day. But inside, it’s a slightly different story.

Jackson Ryan/CNET

Darling Point is the kind of place you'd be lucky to retire to.

It's a suburb fringed by Sydney Harbour, 10-minutes drive east of the famous Bridge, and dotted with leafy-green trees that curl over the road. You can feel the breeze coming off the ocean. It's upper class suburbia. The type of neighbourhood where each house has multiple levels and its own name printed on a plaque next to a wrought-iron fence.

But Darling Point has some new residents.

Five of them. They're kind of a big deal.

They're not the celebrities you see splashed over social media with cash to burn on lavish cribs. Nor are they politicians or business magnates. Nope. The five of them are gaming YouTubers and Twitch streamers -- and they just moved into a $15 million ($11 million USD), five-storey mansion.

Marketing speak will tell you it's "a gaming house," built for professional gamers to live and train together. But this house is a little different. The residents aren't "pro gamers," they're regular gamers but high-profile YouTubers with millions of subscribers between them. This is a collaboration between US competitive video game giant NRG Esports and management team Click. This house, known as the "Click House," allows Click's team of influencers to live and work together, 24/7, enabling collaboration and helping to grow "gaming influencers into superstars".

It might seem like a YouTuber's dream. A payoff after years of hard work: Living in a mansion with your best friends. The videos on YouTube give off the impression that the house is filled with energetic, affable anybodies who get to spend all day playing video games. But hidden behind the screen, the work has only just begun. Inside, hours are spent creating and editing content for millions of adoring fans. Some personalities can't even find time to go to the gym, while others clock in and out like it's an office job. Making it big on the internet may be a dream for many, but there is a cost and, in the Click House, it's being paid in kind.

I spent an afternoon in Click House, speaking to the some of the stars living inside. I readied myself for a chaotic mess of shouting and madness. Rambunctious behaviour. I anticipated the type of reality TV show drama you only find on The Bachelor, played out before my eyes, in real time.

I expected a circus, but it was more like a library.

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The entrance. 

Jackson Ryan/CNET

The Fortnite Mansion

Andy Miller knows Fortnite is a big deal.

His son wakes up every morning, barely saying a word, spooning breakfast into his mouth while watching Fortnite compilation videos on YouTube. The battle royale video game, where 100 players are dropped on a map to fight until only one survives, has become a global phenomenon whether you play, or just spectate -- and spectating is big business. 

YouTube, Google's video streaming megalith, pulls in 1.8 billion monthly users, while Twitch, Amazon's live-streaming platform, recorded over 100 million hours watched for the month of September 2018. For some of YouTube's biggest stars, it's a full-time job with a huge payoff. In 2017 Felix Kjellberg, the man behind PewDiePie and its 67 million subscribers, made an estimated $12 million

Miller is aware of the huge business potential in streaming video games. He is the co-founder of NRG Esports, a US organisation that includes teams for some of the world's most recognizable competitive video games, such as Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Rocket League. With Fortnite's success growing larger, Miller and NRG began looking for a way to incorporate it into their esports-based roster.

"Fortnite is a cultural phenomenon, everybody plays it, but it's not a hardcore esport. It wasn't built for esport like Overwatch was," explains Miller.

After following one of Australia's most popular Fortnite YouTubers, Muselk, Miller was excited to get him and the Click group of influencers on board. In mid September, those plans came to fruition and the team of five moved in to Darling Point together. Though Fortnite was front of mind, Miller was excited about what each content creator would bring to the table.

"We wanted this to be about these goofy guys who are all buddies, who love hanging out and love making great gaming content."

That sounds like it could be fun.

Noodles

Click House is located at the end of a cul-de-sac, sandwiched between multi-million dollar homes. From the outside, it looks solemn. Wooden double doors sing "hidden Bond-villain chic" more than "modern day excess."

When I first enter, it's quiet. My sneakers squeak against the wood floor. There's no music playing or TV blaring. Every now and then I hear a muffled shout coming from a row of bedrooms on the third floor.

It's almost serene.

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A semi-inflated hot dog in the second floor pool.

Jackson Ryan/CNET

The first floor is home to PrestigeClips (real name Marcus) and his personal gaming setup. On his horizon, a clot of yachts bob up and down in Sydney Harbour. Not a bad place to make compilation videos for some 4.2 million YouTube subscribers.

Another level down, there's a pool sprinkled with fallen leaves. A semi-inflated hot dog floats glumly in the water. In the kitchen, Kathleen Belsten, AKA Loserfruit, clicks away at her laptop on a round wooden table. I ask her if she finds it weird that strangers like me might just start coming into her house to poke around, but it doesn't phase her.

"Has anyone used the kitchen? To cook?" I prod, examining the clean benchtops.

"Besides me?" she replies. "Uh, maybe for noodles?"

14 hour days

In the master bedroom, sun filters through the window. Elliott Watkins is tucked in the corner of his bedroom, avoiding that light. He's working. The light he's interested in comes from incandescent globes hanging over his dual monitor setup.

Watkins, 23, is the man behind "Muselk". With seven million subscribers he is one of Australia's highest profile gaming YouTubers. For six years, Watkins has been recording himself play popular online multiplayer shooters like Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch, racking up over two billion views. Nowadays, the majority of his uploads focus on the zeitgeist-controlling Fortnite.

In 2016 he co-founded Click Management, in an attempt to expand and build a portfolio of Australian YouTube talent. This house exists because of Watkins and his management brought these influencers together.

When I visit, he's in the midst of preparing an upload for his channel. The room is largely bare but for a queen-size bed and a walk-in wardrobe that connects to an ornate, modern ensuite. His gold YouTube plaque rests against a wall, commemorating one million subscribers. Since the start of 2018, his subscriber numbers have ballooned by over 250 percent.

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Watkins at his computer desk, flanked by a simple green screen.

Jackson Ryan/CNET

That kind of meteoric rise up the YouTube ranks does not come easy.

Factoring in "procrastination breaks", Watkins sums up the total time he devotes to YouTube at about 14 hours per day. "Pretty much every YouTuber I know is incredibly hard working," he explains.

"Most days I'm working, recording, editing, uploading, making thumbnails from pretty much 10am. I don't get to bed until 2am. I do that every day."

Even when he's taking week-long breaks, he's hustled to ensure his content pipeline is full. Not uploading daily, he believes, will see his channel lose its audience. It seems unhealthy, but Watkins doesn't look unhealthy. He describes himself as "pudgy", refuses to snack and opines that he'd like to get to the gym more often, but he also speaks about it like it's an impossibility. "It's three hours out of my day, which I actually can't do."

"One of the parts of the job that makes it so stressful, that I think most people overlook, is that there's no other job that gives you real-time performance feedback. It's almost like getting a report card from your boss, every minute of every day," Watkins says.

It's not only external pressure. Talking with Watkins it's obvious that he puts a lot of pressure on himself to maintain a certain standard. He watches his subscriber numbers rise and dip live, on his second screen. He can tell, almost immediately, how well a certain video will perform.

"If you're not working hard, there's someone that will be more than happy to work harder than you. If you start slacking off, there's someone out there who's hungry for that growth, who'll very happily take your place," he explains.

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The loud, colourful list of videos on Muselk's YouTube channel

Screenshot by Jackson Ryan/YouTube/Muselk

Clock in, clock out

On the opposite end of the spectrum is "Crayator", a Twitch and YouTube up-and-comer. He's not reached the lofty heights of Muselk, but he's seen as a fast mover. His backwards cap and youthful face gives him a boyish charm, but it's offset by a curled-at-the-edges handlebar moustache you might see on an early 20th century vaudevillian.

As I arrive on the third floor, I can hear Crayator shouting from behind a closed door. He's streaming the latest Call of Duty beta to some of his 184,000 Twitch subscribers, but it's him I can hear -- not the video game. "That's more like it," I think to myself. That's the kind of image I have become used to assigning YouTube stars in my head. Loud, brash, obnoxious. Totally in your face, bro.

Though I'm not allowed to interrupt his stream, I call Crayator -- real name Nathan Ryan -- later in the day and find he is none of those things. Though he may be shouting from his bedroom for hours, when I talk to him he's softly-spoken, humble. Cheery. He speaks articulately about his passion for content creation, for Twitch and YouTube and about his new home.

When he found out Click management decided to partner with NRG he was "over the moon".

"It was a dream of mine to join an esports team," he says.

crayatorsetup

Crayator's bedroom streaming setup.

Nathan Ryan

Like Watkins, Ryan explains that it's not always easy. One of the key battles is against yourself.

"No matter what anybody says, when you turn a hobby into a job, I feel like you're always trying to up yourself. It gets to people. You do get drained."

Then there's his audience, who he knows are hungry for more content. If he doesn't show up for a scheduled stream or his content starts to dry up, they begin asking questions. They want to know where he's gone, when he will be back. It's a theme that runs across all content creators once they reach a certain threshold. They don't just become beholden to the platforms they work on, but also to the audience that got them there.

"For the most part, I do feel like I owe my audience some sort of respect of schedule and content," he explains with a matter-of-fact tone. "Your audience are who pay you at the end of the day. They are who enjoy you. I feel culpable to that ideal of sticking to my word."

When 5pm rolls around, Crayator clocks out for the day and Nathan Ryan clocks in. Even in a $15 million mansion, he turns to Netflix or his social media feeds when work is done.

"I can watch TV, I can relax. When it's 5pm onwards, I'm not streaming, I'm not directly making content which has helped me a lot not to burn out."

The Algorithm

"YouTube was always like "take breaks, it's fine" but it's not fine," Watkins says, laughing.

That's because taking a break upsets YouTube's omnipotent, omnipresent algorithm, the autonomous piece of code that dictates who should be watching what. If the system detects a YouTuber on the rise, it pushes their videos to more and more users. It rewards consistency -- it's the reason that many creators, Watkins included, feel like they have to be producing new videos every single day.

"The YouTube algorithm is lethal," he says. "It's the nature of the beast. YouTube's all about being current, being always engaging, you always have to be there… they could tweak the algorithm."

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The house's first level opens onto a slim balcony overlooking Sydney Harbour.

Jackson Ryan/CNET

There's parallels in Watkins' and Ryan's stories. Where Ryan is really just getting started and hungry to grow, Watkins is battle-wearied. He's 23 and yet he's preparing for life after YouTube. He's ready to ease his foot off the pedal, if only a little bit.  The gaming house is one way for him to plan for the future, but also one that can improve his mental health. He'd rather not worry about making Fortnite videos every day.

"I'm excited to do YouTube at maybe 50 percent of the workload I'm doing right now. Maybe upload a video every 2 days. Spend a bit more time on Click and me personally."

With stories about YouTubers burning out becoming the norm, it's no surprise that Watkins is starting to tire. The more hours you put in, the better chance you have of getting on the algorithms good side and making it really big, so you work harder and longer to attract more viewers. When does it stop?

"It's a job that you never finish, because you're never done with YouTube," Watkins says.

YouTube offers users and creators access to the Creator Academy, an online portal that provides various courses, including those focused on health and wellness. They offer tips like "it can be helpful to have routines and treat each day like a workday (which means scheduling days off too!)" and "don't ignore burnout because it will likely just get worse".

Blurred lines

I entered the Click House hoping for the kind of sprightly devilry associated with adults in their early 20s -- but turned up to 11. I hoped for the kind of misbehaviour befitting of the buzzword-soup press release.

But the house, with its harbour views and huge, open spaces, was more like an office block for the 21st century. In complete contrast to the bombastic content on the residents' channels, it felt… colorless. They sat in front of computer screens editing, publishing. They weren't running around setting fire to things or riding dirt bikes into the pool. They were doing what they do almost every day. Making videos. Streaming.

Constantly working.

Dr Jonathan Hutchinson, lecturer in online communication and media at the University of Sydney, explains how the lifestyles that appear on screen may seem enticing but perhaps don't reflect the true nature of what it means to be a YouTuber.

"You see the glossy video on YouTube but it's very hard to align the amount of human labour that has gone into the process of getting to the final video," he explains. 

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Pop culture memorabilia on display in the living room

Jackson Ryan/CNET

Moving into a house where everything you do can become content, the line becomes blurred even more and the workload increases, heightening the possibility of burning out or losing interest. At least for Watkins, already putting in 14 hour days, that doesn't appear to be a problem. It's almost preferable to step away from the ever-looming shadow of Fortnite.

"I really love sharing almost everything, and the times when life [and] content blur are some of the best (like cooking streams Kathleen does) because the energy is so great," he says.

But it reveals the strange dichotomy of making it big on the internet. It's a grind hidden behind an over-saturated, fluro-coloured thumbnail with a clickbait headline. Creators in the house belie their online personas: They're reserved, humble, quiet, even isolated.

And they can't get off the treadmill, lest someone take their spot.

When I grow up I want to be a YouTuber

"Literally anyone can do it. Everyone wants to do it. The stereotypical "I want to be an astronaut, I want to be a fireman"… the top responses are now "I want to do YouTube," Watkins says matter-of-factly.

A decade ago, you couldn't tell your parents you wanted to be a YouTuber -- the job didn't exist. Then we all had smartphones. Content was literally at the end of our fingertips, on demand. Whenever we wanted it. Whoever we wanted it from.

Now there's a whole generation of kids who dream of living out their lives online because of creatives like Muselk, Loserfruit and Crayator. Eyes are glued to screens as you watch people travel the world, play the games they love, live lavish lifestyles in big houses with their best friends.

"That's a sizeable carrot to dangle in front of someone," Hutchinson says. 

But the hunger for content is never satiated. There's always more to be made. Is it a job? That seems debatable, but for the members of the Click House, it's how they make money -- and they can't stop. The space is too competitive to press pause, to take time off.

Even if that means they can't always bask in the fruits of their labour -- the multi-million dollar home that they live in, by the sea.

"It's sort of like being an athlete. Well it's the opposite of being an athlete, but it's also like being an athlete," Watkins jokes.

"You really have to try to make hay while the sun shines."

And in Darling Point, the sun shines bright. It'd be a shame to miss it. 

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